Photo: IndyCar

St. Petersburg weekend, Thursday and Friday notes

Leave a comment

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – There have been a lot of things that have happened today and yesterday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the season-opening weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series, Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and Pirelli World Challenge.

So, here’s an attempted recap of some of the things beyond the on-track sessions:

VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES

EXTENSIONS, AND A ROAD MAP, ARE GOOD

Frye (center) has been at head of INDYCAR’s recent development and planning. Photo: IndyCar

It’s a good thing the term “five-year plan” isn’t a drinking term because INDYCAR president of competition and operations Jay Frye says “five-year plan” a lot.

But “five-year plan” is a phrase that can stave off a lot of anxiety because it is a phrase that indicates a clear road map, with direction and commitments from the key series stakeholders.

Frye said the word “plan” no less than eight times during today’s press conference confirming the various extensions between Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara.

“I think everybody up here has been part of this five-year plan we keep talking about, which is a collaboration of this entire group, as well as everybody in the paddock,” Frye explained.

“It was important we have a path, a destination of where we’re going. As mentioned earlier, the plan in 19 will change things for ’21, ’22, ’23. We’re always looking that far out. Want to make sure everybody has bought into what we’re doing next.”

Paddock reception to the news seemed positive. Michael Andretti said it was beneficial for INDYCAR, as a sanctioning body, to be proactive rather than reactive and said this is what they are trying to do now. Alexander Rossi, who is in a noticeably better and different mindset about IndyCar than this time 12 months ago when he was making his series debut, was equally effusive.

Will Power added similar praise after the Friday press conference: “I think you could see the momentum with the continuity of drivers, teams, manufacturers, tire manufacturers, all that. It shows strength in the series. It really does. There was a time when there was a different set of drivers every year. Now it’s the same group every year, same teams.”

HONDA FAST, BUT LET’S WAIT TIL TOMORROW FOR MORE

DIxon at speed. Photo: Honda

Quite a bit last year, you’d see some Honda teams have decent practice days, but it didn’t necessarily translate to having better qualifying runs.

At St. Petersburg in particular, only Takuma Sato (2015) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2016) have gotten Hondas into the Firestone Fast Six since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits.

Chip Ganassi Racing Teams certainly had a great second session today with Dixon first, Tony Kanaan third and Charlie Kimball fourth, all in the 1:02 bracket around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course. But Dixon cautioned against reading too much into the times.

“It’s Friday. It doesn’t pay anything, doesn’t mean anything,” said the Kiwi. “Hopefully what we learnt today, we can continue on and help improve the car come tomorrow, and more importantly for the race on Sunday.”

PUTTING THE BRAKES ON THE BRAKE TALK?

Is excessive brake temperature and potential brake fade in the race going to be a major topic of conversation this weekend? It depends on who you ask.

Performance Friction’s carbon brakes make their debut this weekend, replacing previously supplier Brembo. Per PFC Director of Motorsports Darrick Dong, PFC had 28 total IndyCar tests prior to their race debut this weekend dating to the middle of last year. PFC was announced as new supplier in September last season; a full intro Q&A is linked here.

The general perception in the paddock is that some Honda teams may have not optimized their cooling to ensure their discs don’t get too hot, whereas the Chevrolet teams might have done a better job in the design process. Will Power, who was second in second practice, said this isn’t the highest track for brake pressures with only two decently long straights and heavy braking points.

“The brakes for me have been fine. It’s not a really high-pressure track,” Power explained. “I think it’s when you go to places like Elkhart Lake, Indy road course, these places where you have massive brake pressure, and you notice the difference.”

SUSIE WHELDON’S NEW SHOP

Susie Wheldon launched the new Verve Boutique store on Central Avenue downtown St. Petersburg on Thursday night. A number of IndyCar drivers and a solid amount of presence from the IndyCar community were there to support the opening for the new store. Wheldon is the widow of the late Dan Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and 2005 series champion who lost his life at Las Vegas in October 2011. More info on the night here is linked via Brant James of USA Today.

A couple of photos are below:

FUN PREVIEW FROM MOBIL 1 THE GRID

From Mobil 1 The Grid: a preview and a look ahead to this street race:

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES

Telitz has a debut pole in Indy Lights. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Here are quick notes from this weekend’s preliminary sessions for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires before their races, which begin tomorrow:

  • History may be on its way to repeating itself in the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, if first practice was to be believed. Pato O’Ward, who was only on an announced one-weekend deal last year (at the time) with Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda and promptly won the first race of the year, led first practice today in his first session of his one-weekend deal (for now, anyway) in Indy Lights. Santiago Urrutia was second with Colton Herta third. The top 13 were covered by just 0.9656 of a second.
  • Come qualifying though and O’Ward was second behind his Pro Mazda title sparring partner last year, Aaron Telitz with Telitz uncorking a late flier in the No. 9 Soul Red Mazda he drives for Belardi Auto Racing. Telitz’s best time of 1:07.5844 nets him a debut pole in his step up to Indy Lights, and fellow American Kyle Kaiser moves into second in the No. 18 Juncos Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda after O’Ward lost his best time with an accident at Turn 7. In third, Juan Piedrahita has a career-best qualifying run for Team Pelfrey; the Colombian veteran’s previous best was fourth at Sonoma, twice, in 2014.
  • Deltro Energy announced its sponsorship of Herta’s No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing entry earlier this week.Based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, Deltro Energy designs and installs energy storage systems with emerging technologies such as Lithium-ion batteries and fly wheels. The younger Herta, who turns 17 this month and did not race here in 2014 when he last raced full-time in the U.S. in USF2000 because he was too young, also threw out the first pitch at Tuesday’s New York Yankees spring training game, held at nearby George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Herta’s got a maturity level beyond his years and told NBC Sports he’s so much happier to be back in an American racing atmosphere, after spending the last two years racing in Europe.
  • Despite a late arrival to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires grid – a deal which only came together within the last week – Victor Franzoni topped the timesheets in first official practice here for Juncos Racing. His old USF2000 sparring partner Anthony Martin was second with Team Pelfrey’s trio of youngsters third through fifth.
  • The order was reversed in qualifying though, with Mazda scholarship recipient Martin eclipsing Franzoni for pole for the first race. The Australian took his Cape Motorsports Soul Red Mazda to a pole time of 1:13.6718, just 0.012 of a second clear of Franzoni. TJ Fischer and Carlos Cunha were next for Pelfrey with World Speed Motorsports’ Phillippe Denes rounding out the top five.
  • Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda had two qualifying sessions, which feature two different orders. Robert Megennis has his first career pole for Team Pelfrey in race one, and Parker Thompson has the first pole for USF2000 debuting team Exclusive Autosport. Somewhat bizarrely, both drivers set the exact same time but in two different sessions, at a lap of 1:15.3708!
  • It’s been a tough weekend for Newman/Wachs Racing in the team’s return to the open-wheel ladder. The former Atlantic Championship title-winning team has witnessed three accidents, two from Andre Castro and one for Cameron Das, who is in his only confirmed weekend with the team so far. Castro was reportedly distraught after a Thursday accident but got back in on Friday, only to have another accident. Das’ car came back on a truck at the end of the session.

Results from today’s sessions are below:

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

Aquilante led the GTS field in PWC, Friday at St. Petersburg. Photo: PWC

Here are notes from the Pirelli World Challenge paddock:

  • Expect the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, the classic “Red Dragon No. 99” car driven by Jon Fogarty, to be a Sprint-weekend only entrant, barring a change of plans from team principal Stallings. The team indicated the desire to be primarily in the Sprint race markets (the five IndyCar weekends) for GAINSCO Auto Insurance agents, and also want to take a “wait-and-see” approach to the SprintX season. The SprintX season starts at Virginia International Raceway at the end of April.
  • Late entrant Daniel Mancinelli, an Italian driver with some GT experience in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, took his No. 31 TR3 Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 to a surprise overall pole position. He was initially classified as a GTA driver (amateur or inexperienced in GT cars status) but later reclassified to GT following a formal evaluation from PWC.
  • Ryan Eversley’s No. 43 RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 did not make qualifying after an accident on Thursday, Eversley having hit the wall at Turn 6 in a rare incident for the popular driver out of Georgia who’s become an unofficial resident of Wisconsin in recent years since joining RealTime. Michael Shank Racing is assisting in the repair process by sending some spare parts to Florida to help the rebuild, which will be completed in time for the first GT race to be held on Saturday.
  • Andrew Aquilante took the fifth consecutive victory on the streets of St. Petersburg for the venerable but aging Ford Mustang Boss 302 in PWC GTS race one. Dean Martin and Spencer Pumpelly did so in 2015 with Jack Roush Jr. sweeping last year. This is a one-off weekend for Aquilante and Phoenix Performance, for the moment. Polesitter Lawson Aschenbach took the new Chevrolet Camaro GT4 to second in its race debut for Blackdog Speed Shop with Jade Buford third in one of the Racers Edge SIN R1 GT4s.
  • Speaking of the new Camaro GT4, the Blackdog team showed assembled media around the new car this morning. A full debrief from that will come next week. The Camaro GT4 runs a parallel debut program between PWC and IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge; the Camaro will debut in that series at Circuit of The Americas in May.
  • Audi Tire Center announced an extension with Magnus Racing’s pair of Audi R8 LMS entries, which make their PWC debut this weekend. Pierre Kaffer and John Potter are in the two cars.

Results from today’s sessions are below:

OTHER NOTES

Andretti Autosport’s new hospitality unit is a sight to behold in the paddock. Photo: Tony DiZinno
  • Andretti Autosport premiered its new hospitality unit in the paddock today, which is rather large and dwarfs all others as it has a rooftop viewing area. Michael Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay both joked the hospitality unit needs a name; when the question was posed to Andretti Indy Lights driver Dalton Kellett, the Canadian engineering major and series sophomore joked it should be called “Clifford the Big Red Tent” in reference to Clifford the Big Red Dog, a children’s carton. The tent may not be red, but it is big.
  • On more serious Andretti Autosport matters, team president JF Thormann told NBC Sports he hopes to have the driver for the team’s fifth car for the Indianapolis 500 settled within the next two weeks.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which fields the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Graham Rahal this weekend, hosted Special Forces members from MacDill today. RLL’s “Turns for Troops” program continues into 2017; more info on that program is here.
  • Rising Star Racing principal Art Wilmes is here this weekend supporting both of his two primary drivers Spencer Pigot and Neil Alberico, RSR ambassador and “godfather” Josef Newgarden, and Pro Mazda champion and Indy Lights rookie Telitz, who’s had a bit of help from him before. Wilmes said he is working on ensuring Pigot, who’s not currently confirmed for the Indianapolis 500, can land a seat there.
  • On another Rising Star Racing note, several members of the Tampa Bay Lighting were present today for pace car rides, and hung out with RSR’s current primary Indy Lights driver Alberico of Carlin.
  • Ricky Taylor was here today as an interested bystander. Taylor tested for Team Penske last month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in his IndyCar debut. “It was an absolute blast. Every driver’s goal at one point in their career is to be an IndyCar driver, and it was amazing to get the call to drive a Penske car,” Taylor told IndyCar Radio. “We were doing a two-day test in Sebring with the Cadillac, I said I have to miss one of them. I’m testing a Penske car! Took the test and it was a blast to drive one of these, muscling around.”
  • Verizon has a new pit display branding in pit lane, that takes cues from its previous design and is updated for 2017.
  • Honda’s hospitality – long a paddock staple – continues with additional enhancements including a new awning and several other new elements once inside the tent. The food, as ever, remains excellent.
  • Oriol Servia is here, as is fellow open-wheel veteran Adrian Fernandez. Fernandez said he offers some advice and support to young Mexican drivers while he can, such as Indy Lights driver O’Ward.
  • While rookie Ed Jones made his formal debut on track today in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, three of that car’s four drivers from last year were also either at the track today or en route to it. RC Enerson was here, doing his best to keep his face present in the paddock after his three-race debut last year. Gabby Chaves is here as well, doing the same, while Pippa Mann was en route to St. Petersburg and expects to be here this weekend for an autograph signing at INDYCAR’s Fan Village and to check in with the paddock herself.

More to come from the rest of the weekend later on.

NASCAR, not Indy 500, on Jenson Button’s radar after Fontana visit

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jenson Button would like to enter a NASCAR event in the future after enjoying a visit to March’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, but has no interest in following former McLaren Formula 1 teammate Fernando Alonso into the Indianapolis 500.

2009 world champion Button will make a one-off return to F1 this weekend while Alonso races in the Indy 500, with the Briton believing he had made his final Grand Prix start in Abu Dhabi last year.

Button has not raced in any discipline since the season finale at Yas Marina, instead preferring to focus on his triathlon training after qualifying for the upcoming world championships.

When asked if he would consider following Alonso’s lead and entering the ‘500 in the future, Button revealed he would prefer to try out NASCAR.

“Indy’s not really been something that I’ve ever thought about. Personally, I was surprised that Fernando was interested in doing it, but we all like different things,” Button said.

“I would like to race in NASCAR, I think that would be fun. I went along to one of the races this year, Jimmie Johnson invited me, and I had a great time.

“I loved seeing the show as it is, and it’s very different to other motorsports. Equally, it’s a challenge, it’s a massive challenge. Who knows?”

Button was a guest of Johnson at Auto Club Speedway back in March over the Australian Grand Prix weekend, with the Briton noting at the time that there was much F1 could learn from NASCAR.

Button added that he would also like to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans one day, but only in a competitive seat such as the one Nico Hulkenberg had with Porsche when he won the race in 2015.

“We’re racing drivers, we’re not just F1 drivers, and we like trying different sports,” Button said.

“For me, I would like to do Le Mans one day. I think it would be a great experience, a great team atmosphere. Obviously it has to be the right opportunity like Nico had.

“And then there’s other motorsports that I love like rallycross as well. So there are many things. But Indy hasn’t been up there for me for many different reasons.”

Hamilton and Vettel’s friendly rivalry faces test in Monaco

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MONACO (AP) The chummy rivalry between Formula One champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel could be tested at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, an unforgiving circuit where drivers are often pushed to the limit.

After five races, four-time F1 champion Vettel is six points clear of three-time champion Hamilton. They have two wins each and are relishing what is, surprisingly, their first championship tussle.

When Vettel was dominating for Red Bull, winning his titles from 2010-13, Hamilton lagged behind with McLaren. As Hamilton started dominating for Mercedes the following year, Vettel struggled with Red Bull. After switching to Ferrari in 2015, the German driver failed to significantly challenge Hamilton or his former Mercedes teammate, Nico Rosberg.

Although they share a total of 99 F1 wins, this is the first year Hamilton and Vettel have really gone head-to-head on track.

“You have to respect if other people do a good job,” Vettel said. “We’re very different. But I think we have a very strong connection.”

Hamilton has been equally praiseworthy.

“To have that close battle with him, with a four-time champ, is awesome,” the British driver said. “This is what the sport needs to be every single race.”

Fans are thrilled, and it is equally a relief for Hamilton to be challenging a driver he respects so much and, additionally, one from another team.

For the past three years, Hamilton was embroiled in a tense fight with Rosberg and their thorny relationship caused frictions within Mercedes.

An air of relief has swept through Mercedes since Rosberg retired after winning last year’s title. Not because he was unpopular, but because the team no longer has to deal with an ongoing saga that the media feasted on.

“This season I have re-discovered why I love the sport,” said Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes motorsport. “We are in a massive fight with Ferrari.”

In other words, the fight has been taken outside of Mercedes itself and the rivalry with Vettel is more healthy.

However, an incident in Spain two weeks ago, where Hamilton won ahead of Vettel, suggested cracks could start appearing in the smooth facade of their relationship.

Vettel came perilously close to nudging Hamilton off the track as they fought for space heading into a turn. Hamilton had seemed somewhat irked by Vettel’s aggression – although it was exactly the kind of in-your-face driving Hamilton revels in.

With the F1 title shaping into a two-way race, neither can afford a slip.

That will heighten the pressure on both in glitzy Monaco, where F1 lovers mingle with millionaires, and which Wolff describes as “the crown jewel” of F1.

The smallest braking mistake on a tight and sinewy 3.4-kilometer (2.1-mile) circuit through the winding streets of Monte Carlo, past its famed casino and around its glittering, yacht-laden harbor, can send a distracted driver into the barriers.

“There is no such thing as a low risk lap in Monaco, it doesn’t exist if you want to be fast,” said Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, who crashed in last year’s race.

With overtaking notoriously difficult, pole position holds increased value. That makes qualifying crucial, where drivers juggle speed with not pushing the car too hard.

“It is a mentally exhausting weekend,” Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said. “One mistake will cost you.”

But one advantage for drivers this year is that the Pirelli tires are far more durable, increasing time on track and limiting pit stops.

Still, that advantage is offset by another factor: the size of the cars.

F1 rule changes this year led to cars being made faster and wider. On a narrow track, this poses “a massive challenge” when pushing the car close to the limit, Hamilton said.

“It’ll be a real test of your awareness of where the car is,” the Englishman said. “You need to be sharp and clear.”

Ganassi team confident amid high expectations for Indy 500

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Chip Ganassi Racing was uncharacteristically quiet during last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Tony Kanaan was the only member of the team to lead laps, heading the field for 19 circuits. Charlie Kimball took advantage of a strategy similar to winner Alexander Rossi’s to finish fifth, while Scott Dixon was never in contention much of the day and finished eighth. Max Chilton, in his first “500,” soldiered home in 15th.

For the 101st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the team has a much different outcome in mind. Once again partnered with Honda, which had the superior speedway package last year, Chip Ganassi’s outfit appears to be in a much stronger position heading into this year’s race.

Most notably, Scott Dixon captured the pole, with Tony Kanaan joining him in the Fast Nine shootout before qualifying seventh. And while Chilton and Kimball start 15th and 16th, they could easily be dark horses heading into race day.

Team owner Chip Ganassi was bursting with enthusiasm when asked about returning Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a May 19 press conference.

“I mean, I’m excited. I mean I think — you know, when you come back here to Indianapolis, it’s the real thing. It’s what we’re all about. It’s why we got in this sport in the first place, is because of the Indianapolis 500. We want to win this race, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he asserted.

Mike Hull, managing director of the Verizon IndyCar Series side of Chip Ganassi’s operation, detailed the team’s success, and potential for more success, is down to people and communication, and that on the driving front, he thinks they have all their bases covered.

“In order for race drivers to win races, they have to support their teammates and their teammates have to give very unselfishly to each other when you race at a major event like this one,” Hull explained. “And it’s really, really neat to see these four drivers interact with each other knowing full well that one of the other ones could win. That’s very special, and that’s what we have at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Dixon, the polesitter and holder of one of the fastest speeds Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seen since 1996, is not only Ganassi’s longest tenured driver but the team’s best bet for success on race day, in tandem with engineer Chris Simmons. Dixon alluded to missed opportunities (such as in 2015, when an overheating problem dropped him from the lead late in the race, and in 2011, when fuel strategy put paid to his chances) as added motivation to secure his second “500” triumph.

Scott Dixon might be the favorite going into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Photo: Indycar

“I think we came up short in a couple where we could have maybe stolen a couple wins there which would have definitely helped that list. But yeah, you know, it’s all focused right now on this event and preparing as well as we can,” he said.

“I think the first couple of days were definitely trying in a lot of ways but I think we found some good headway, but it’s the goal. We finished second here a couple of times and it’s almost the worst place to finish when you come so close, especially under caution.”

One might assume that as a former winner, Dixon may hold a mental edge on most of the field. But, he later revealed that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Every year is very different. The target constantly moves. The situations change. How the race plays out changes,” he said. “I think because you’ve had the sense and the feeling of that victory, you want it that much more again. So I think it maybe even adds to it.”

Teammate Tony Kanaan, who won this race in 2013, echoed those sentiments. “To me every year it’s like the first year,” he added. “I mean, I don’t get to think that I won this thing until Monday. If everything goes wrong, I might, you know, just say ‘All right, at least I won one.’ That’s the way I really think. But up until then I still get as nervous as I was the first time. I still want to win as bad as if I hadn’t won.”

Tony Kanaan is looking for his second Indy 500 triumph. Photo: IndyCar

So far, Kanaan has endured a difficult 2017 campaign. With only two finishes inside the top ten, he languishes back in 11th in the championship. Still, he recognizes that this year presents as strong a chance as he’s ever had at Indianapolis, and the strength of Ganassi’s organization creates a heightened sense of pressure to perform.

“I got extremely lucky when after I won the “500” I got hired by Chip and Mike’s organization. I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. So they cut my work in half by doing that,” he added. “They give me great cars, great people, and it’s just an awesome place to be. So for me, you know, I think I have one of my best shots this year.”

Outside of Dixon and Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are often the overlooked men of Chip Ganassi’s four-car armada. However, each has shown the potential for success.

Kimball, a former IndyCar race winner, has very quietly established himself at the Indy 500 with consecutive finishes inside the top five (third in 2015 and fifth in 2016) to go along with two other finishes inside the top ten (eighth in 2012, ninth in 2013). Like Kanaan, Kimball has endured a difficult 2017 season, one in which he didn’t even make it through the opening lap in any race until Round 3 at Barber Motorsports Park.

Charlie Kimball has quietly put together a strong record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IndyCar

Kimball explained that his success is down to a simple love of the race track, and that the surrounding team may be the most vital component to ending the day in victory lane.

“I love racing around here. And on Race Day the fact that it’s a 500-mile event: it’s challenging mentally, physically, not just for us as drivers but especially for the teams, the guys on the stand, the engineers, the strategists, the guys, the crew that go over the wall. I mean, that focus that they need for those six, seven-plus stops is critical to the job we do on the racetrack,” he said.

And for Max Chilton, who has raced at such world-renowned events as the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, competing at the Indy 500 left an indelible impression on him.

“I’ve done some big races, Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix a number of times, but this one stands out last year,” he said. “(It was) the 100th running of the biggest race we’ve ever had here. To me that was still very incredible.”

An Indianapolis 500 victory would the first career IndyCar win for Chilton. Photo: IndyCar

While a victory for him would be an upset of sorts, Chilton knows he has everything he needs to do so. “I’m going to work as hard as I can. I feel like we got the car in a good place (in practice) and I can’t wait to be here on the 28th of May and be zooming around,” said the Briton, who was fastest during Monday practice.

The team has moved a number of pieces around – Kanaan and Kimball swapped engineers with Eric Cowdin coming back to Kanaan and Todd Malloy going over to Kimball – and other crew members have also been rotated. But as Hull explained, that comes from the strength of depth within the organization based on Woodland Drive in Indianapolis.

“We’re lucky, we have quality people in all positions, so we can do that,” Hull said. “But what it does is it provides fresh thinking even though the thinking is in the same room. And it’s all about the interaction of people. That’s what teamwork is all about and teams of people are all about. They have to pinch each other every day to remember what the priority actually is, and our priority is to win. We try to match the people up that we think can do that.”

An Indy 500 victory in 2017 would be the fifth for Chip Ganassi Racing, the previous four coming at the hands of Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Scott Dixon (2008), and Dario Franchitti (2010, 2012).

Follow Kyle Lavigne

Button well-prepared, jovial ahead of Formula 1 comeback

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jenson Button says he feels well-prepared to make his one-off return to Formula 1 in this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix despite not yet driving the 2017-spec McLaren car.

Button stepped back from his McLaren seat at the end of 2016 and looked to have made his last F1 appearance, having agreed to remain with the team as an ambassador and reserve driver if requied.

The 2009 F1 world champion was called into action by McLaren following Fernando Alonso’s shock decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500, skipping the Monaco Grand Prix in order to do so.

Button made his first appearance in the F1 paddock since last November’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Wednesday, facing questions in the FIA’s pre-race press conference which he answered with a mix of good humor and, at times, sarcasm.

One of the biggest concerns surrounding Button’s return has been his level of preparation, with the Briton turning down the offer to test the MCL32 car last month following the Bahrain Grand Prix – meaning his first taste of F1’s new-style 2017 cars will come on Thursday in Monaco practice.

Button isn’t worried, though, believing the additional running in Bahrain wouldn’t have benefitted him a great deal given the drastically different nature of the circuit.

“Preparation has been good, apart from I haven’t driven the car with these new regulations,” Button acknowledged.

“So it’s not perfect, but the option was to do half a day in Bahrain which I thought was absolutely useless for me to do, completely different type of circuit.

“I said to the team I think it’s best if I do a few days in the simulator. Obviously as drivers we love the simulator, so I was raring to go… I spent a lot of time in the simulator just getting a feel for it.

“It’s been interesting. Most of the stuff’s the same, but there are a few things that are obviously different. Different in regulations and it changes from year to year, technology and what have you.

“A few things to learn, but it’s still a racing car. Just got to get used to [the car] being a bit wider.”

Button’s return comes at a time when McLaren is at a low point – quite literally – as it sits at the bottom of the constructors’ championship with a score of zero following the first five races of the season.

Much of the team’s struggles have stemmed from its Honda power unit, which has lacked both reliability and performance so far this season, leaving Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne ailing in races.

Monaco is set to present McLaren its best chance yet of points, with the tight and twisting nature of the street course making any frailties on the engine side seem less severe.

Yet for Button, there is no pressure to get McLaren off the mark in 2017 and overhaul Sauber, who recently moved off the foot of the teams’ table following Pascal Wehrlein’s run to eighth in Spain.

“Definitely not,” Button said when asked if he felt under any pressure for his comeback. “I’m very relaxed. Very excited, actually. It’s interesting coming back for one grand prix. It being Monaco, it’s very special.

“I’ve won here before, I’ve lived here for 17 years. I’ve had some really good experiences here. It’s exciting. But I don’t feel any pressure, not at all. I will get in the car and do the best job I can, that’s what I’m here to do.

“And everything I do in life is the same. You want to be competitive, you want to be getting the best out of yourself and the best out of the equipment and the team you are working with. So that hasn’t changed.

“The car seemed to be working well in Barcelona in qualifying. Fernando did a good job, but I think it still proves the car itself is working well. I drove in the simulator and I drove the upgrade, which I was misquoted on, by the way. I drove that upgrade and it was a definite improvement.

“There are more improvements here as well. If it’s all straightforward this weekend then we should be reasonably competitive.”